In theory, it’s about time a disc like this came out. Especially considering how many other blues legends have had their songs recompiled and reshuffled in endless combinations and permutations of compilations, it’s difficult to believe that this — all 12 songs of it — is already the most definitive compilation to include both B.B. King‘s early songs, now held by Virgin, and the later ones that, from 1962 on, are held by MCA.
Except that there are only two early numbers here, “Three O’Clock Blues” and “Everyday I Have the Blues”. Considering that this period was arguably King’s best, two songs will hardly suffice. It was in this early period that he innovated the blues to his own ends and built both the musical and spiritual foundation for his later sound with a bigger band.
Even early on, he’s already accompanied by horns and piano and already sounds jazzy. Ironically for someone who’s know the international goodwill ambassador of the blues, King’s music shares surprisingly little with the hard, sparse Chicago sound now taken as the prototypical blues “sound”. Instead, he’s much closer to the Kansas City sound, where jazz, jump, swing, and blues were all meshed together in a more upbeat sound and attitude.
Lyrically, it thus makes sense that, even in “Three O’Clock Blues”, one of his first 1948 recordings included here, he’s already singing that, if he can’t find his baby, “I’m goin’ down to the bowling ground.” That’s right, “bowling”, not “burying.” After all, “That’s where all the men hang out.” In this context, the pop (even occasionally maudlin) feel of some of his MCA songs makes sense. King is the best known, best liked, and most commercial blues artist exactly because of the differences separating him from the few other blues artists in his artistic league (Muddy Waters, for instance). Especially within the genre, no one else of his caliber is even close to sounding so nice and intelligently, movingly, likeably normal.
What shouldn’t be surprising — and what glues the album together as a listening experience if not as an adequate representation of King’s place in history — is how consistent the spirit conveyed by the songs has been. In his early days, King’s voice is softer, sweeter, and more supple and, perhaps most importantly for an artist in a genre where softness and sweetness aren’t especially valued, they are lyrically more inventive. More often, the early scenarios he (as well as the songwriters he picks from) builds around his narrators, whether cheated-on boyfriends or sweet seducers, are more creative and more inventive.
But part of King’s appeal is that his warmth, sincerity, and intelligence are never close to awful, so even the recent albums, cherrypicked to a choice few, hold up fine. Especially here, where only three songs are post-1980, the energy of his performances more than carries over what might, as creative songwriting goes, be relatively mundane — if timeless — conceits. Besides, “Inflation Blues” is a Louis Jordan classic resung as a lament about Reagonomics and Robert Cray, as likely an heir apparent as anyone else, holds his own in the “Playing with My Friends” duet.
Still, it’s unfortunate because King could be well served by, say, a two disc set of 40 songs spanning his whole career. Certainly, his historical impact merits this and his artistic achievements would make it riveting listening. But at least the brevity of this disc won’t get in the way of anyone buying Virgin’s 1992 best-of compiling his early work. Or, for that matter, MCA’s single or double disc compilations of his later stuff.
Admittedly, the music more than holds up for the more than 47 minutes that the album runs. Even granting that I favor his earlier, shorter stuff, the smart whittling of recent stuff serves it well. Yet, as good as the music itself is, you’d still be better off, even if you’re on a budget, getting the single disc Virgin compilation first and the single MCA compilation or Live at the Regal (especially since none of the latter’s incendiary live versions are included here) next. After all, once you’ve heard this disc, you’ll only want to get those anyway.